Sons of Ham, sons of the dog

Kazimir Severinovich Malevich, Girls in the Country, 1928-32


Commentary on the recently published book by Mário Maestri

Since I'm young, I remember my father working. He wasn't like other parents. He was on the left, and the others were indifferent to the dictatorship. I dreamed of having a daddy with a tie. But he didn't wear a tie. My friends' parents went to work wearing ties. Mine sat writing from morning to night about slavery. Not very exciting for a kid. At home, I dressed like a superman, with a towel for a cape. When he was untying himself, I would go into the office and interrupt him so that he could tie the towel around my neck. The office was a world of its own: on the wall were bizarre engravings. I tried not to look. Later I understood that they were Facilities of slave ships.

We lived in a condominium, Equitativa, for left-wing people, one of the safest in Rio de Janeiro, thanks to the good coexistence of the community on the hill that surrounded it. Favela residents used the infrastructure of the condominium: access ramp, bus stop, etc. In return, we lived in holy peace. A success! Especially for the children: we played in the street, all day long, sometimes with the kids from the hill, without worried parents. Rare thing in Rio de Janeiro. An apparent multiracialism with ideological limits.

One day, at home, I repeated a joke I had heard from my little friends, the ones with the tie dads. A racist joke. I didn't know what racism was, what race was, but I repeated the joke because everyone laughed. It was then that I took the only slap my father ever gave me, not too hard. I think he acted without thinking. My parents decided to live in Italy, worried about my school and fearing that I would become a little boy middle class. In Italy, in those years, the workers disputed the government. Much of the population was communist. In my public school, I had more black classmates than in Brazil.

In Milan, my father continued to write and study slavery. I didn't understand what slavery was: it seemed to me something almost impossible. I didn't understand why they were all black. At home and at school, I was brought up on the myths of the Revolution, with idols like Robespierre, Lenin, the partisan, like my uncle Pierino, who fought with Tito in Yugoslavia. The Paris Commune, the Red Army, Vietnam, workers' struggles in the 1970s… What bothered me a little about slavery was the lack of victories. And of heroes. There were no revolutions.


Whiteólaughs and revolutions

In library books, I looked for illustrations. They were sad, with whipping, suffering... I was impressed by the ones by J. Baptiste Debret, like A Brazilian dinner, with naked baby-captives on the floor, fed by elegant bosses, like puppies. He would ask me, “Is it their children or property?” One day I received a huge book. It was the illustrated story of the Haitian Revolution for children. It was an important moment. I discovered that the slaves made a revolution! And, there was a great hero! Toussaint Louverture, dressed as a French revolutionary! Which was also part of my childhood mythology.

The initial enthusiasm was great, the sadness, as the pages progressed, too. Disappointments. The French Republic had re-established slavery. And, in the end, the victorious island was surrounded, so that the revolution would not spread throughout the Americas. And the revolution got stuck on the island. Deep sadness. But I began to understand that it was like that, with captivity. And not just with him. That there were popular sagas without total victories. It was a moment when I felt the bitter taste of reality, without happy ending. At 11, back in Brazil, shortly after the centenary of the end of slavery, I attended the TV Globo pro-dictatorship the announcement of the “end of history”. Global journalists, wearing ties, celebrated the end of “communism”. It was the fall of the Berlin wall, in 1989. My father looked at me and said: – “son, get ready, there are going to be decades of barbarism, I feel sorry for you”. And he was right.

It was another reality check and, perhaps, the end of my childhood. Years of looking at slave ships and drawings of whipped workers and barefoot children helped me to understand what barbarism was like. My father continued studying and writing about slavery, on hiatus, for four decades. Perhaps because of unconscious resentment towards the oppressed, for stealing so much fatherly time from me, I ended up never reading his books on slavery, in French, Portuguese, Italian, as THESlavage au BréSil, Lo Schiavo Coloniale, Testimonies of Brazilian Slaves, The Enslaved Language, the last one, written with my mother. A friend told me that it is typical for children of writers not to read their parents' books.

This time, as he says it is the last work on slavery that he will write, I decided to read it. Sons of Khan, Sons of Khano: the enslaved worker in Brazilian historiography. Marxist Interpretation Essay. After finishing the work of almost four hundred pages, I see, perhaps for the first time, at the age of 44, the totalizing character of a life dedicated to the restoration and understanding of the history of slavery in Brazil.


A questnot a slave owner

I finished the book, easy to read, clear and fluid, in a few days. He draws an immense fresco, the result of a great theoretical and political effort, in an ambitious intellectual adventure of a lifetime. A work that is in line with the titanic undertaking of its maestro Jacob Gorender, author of colonial slavery, to which he pays enormous tribute. For me, Gorender was just a nice old man, who I would find sitting at the table, on my way back from primary school in Milan, when he spent several days with us.

Sons of Ham, Sons of Dog It is a systematic, dense and synthetic study of the history and historiography of slavery, a summary of research begun in the 1970s, most of it published in isolated articles. At a time when the historiography of pre-colonial black Africa and slavery was little studied in Brazil. In democratic language, it traces a line of facts about the slave system, from its origins in the Greek and Roman world, through medieval Portuguese society and its almost forgotten presence of enslaved black and Moorish workers (fascinating, the pages of “Zurara: a Narrativa Founder of Racism”). Narratives follow on the relationship between Church and slavery in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, with surprising protagonists for modernity, such as Fernão de Oliveira and António Sanches, the “abolitionist Jew”. And many pages about Brazil from 1500 to Abolition.

The second part of the book discusses the representations of enslaved people from 1888 to the present day. In the XNUMXth century, the captive approach stands out in Brazilian fictional literature, with emphasis on Castro Alves, the “poet of the Revolution”. It discusses the revolutionary meaning of Brazilian abolitionism — “The Long Agony of Slavery”, “The Abolitionist Revolution”, “Radical Abolitionism”, “Against the Republican Revolution”. The presentation of Gorender's criticism is broad, in Colonial Slavery, of 1978, of the pre-abolition Brazilian social formation, based on the category “colonial slave mode of production”, which destabilized, for years, the traditional views on the Brazilian social formation.

Sons of Ham, Sons of Dog explains to us the meaning of the revolutionary tension, of low intensity, in the silence, in the anonymity, of the nameless, in the disobedience, in the suicides, in the revolts, in the daily rebelliousness, in the voluntary “slowness” at work, in the quilombos, which would lead to the Abolition , in 1888, proposed as the only social revolution to date victorious in Brazil. As the work's sub-title proposes, the narrative is always guided by the Marxist method and categories.


Historiography, yesterday and today

The goal and high point of Sons of Ham, Sons of Dog it is the deconstruction of the representations of the official historiography in relation to the enslaved. In “The Count of Gobineau and the Origin of Scientific Racism”, “Dedicated Captive”, “Desenslaving Language”, it is discussed how characters such as Nina Rodrigues, Euclides da Cunha and the distinguished Gilberto Freyre, anesthetized and sterilized the real understanding of phenomenon. This one wade meéHow on slavery enters into battle with the ideologues of power, always wearing ties, who, nowadays, devotees of the elites, operate racist, identity, classist revisionist maneuvers.

Without making it explicit, the book touches on many themes of identityism. Those who, today, monopolizing the academic and left-wing debate, and, with apparently progressive proposals, divert debate in a liberal sense, with a US flavor. I refer to salon feminism. To gender studies unconcerned with the exploited To petty bourgeois LGBTQ+ obsessions. And, above all, to studies on “race”, which, with titles such as “postcolonialism” and “decolonization”, inject the postmodern sleeping pill into historiography and social sciences.

Sons of Ham, Sons of Dog constitutes a point of no return in many of the issues addressed. And this, thanks also to the dramatic nature of slavery, which helps to clarify the social, political and ideological meaning of racialist, gender, affiliation, sexuality, identity, etc., issues. Above all, the narrative removes the enslaved worker – almost never treated as a “slave” – from his function as a “totem” and “fetish”, in which he was encapsulated, in the historiography of boudoir and the new obsessions of a section of the black middle class. And it presents slavery as a determining phenomenon of pre-capitalist globalized commodification.

The object under study is the worker without freedom, the Brazilian proto-proletarian, a determining, central social being, whose struggle, always present, is rarely verbalized. There is no room in the book for the captive as a sacrificial and passive victim. Presenting slavery and the enslaved as part of a totality, it allows for active insertions in the historical development and better understanding of current Brazil. There is dignity and respect in the narrative, which fixes the reader to the pages, especially when undertaking a harsh, often ironic, critique of referential historiographic nonsense about slavery. Kátia de Queirós Mattoso's critique of the well-behaved historiography in “Como Era Gostoso Ser Escravo No Brasil” is memorable. In its last part, the book undertakes a icharges systematic treatment of the miseries of academic collaborationism.


Ford Foundation

As you advance in the narrative, it is difficult to believe what you read, not about the atrocities of the existence of the “children of dogs”, but about the silences and cover-ups that followed that terrible historical phase. Above all, how such suffering was naturalized, trivialized, dormant, simply denied, by a cynical and opportunistic historiography, defender of the end of history, socialism, class struggle, in the past and in the present. Discourses that are expressions of penetration and mastery Yankee not always silent in the social sciences, under the blessings of Ford Foundation and so many other supporters.

The relativization, diminution, sterilization of the oppressive nature of slavery contributes to making the understanding of the situation of workers and of current Brazilian society unintelligible. Now, we observe, live, in the pro-American media, a similar phenomenon, with the relativization of neo-Nazi members of the militias and the Ukrainian army, presented by journalists, professors, analysts and politicians, as “enemies that we have to support”. If Freyre and his epigones said that “slavery was not that hard”, for the newspapers mainstream, Nazism “is not that serious” if it is “against the Russians”. To put ourselves far from reality is to put ourselves on the sidelines of the possibility of building revolutionary overcomings.

Sons of Ham, Sons ofor Cwill it is a historical record, from the beginning of time to the present day, without glittering heroes and fairy celebrations. This passionate historical and political journey, in language and often bitter silences, characteristic of the long and apparently apathetic, but terribly tense misadventure of slavery, leaves us with a deep bitterness. However, it also proposes us to become aware of the need for a scientific, serious, totalizing, popular, socialist historiography. The book ends with a simple sentence, without rhetoric, without conclusions. As if the continuation still had to be written, by us, and by the workers. One The End which leaves us with an emptiness, that of barbarism, and a cry, that of the need for the liberation of the oppressed.

Sons of Ham, Sons of Dog it is also the scientific report of the life of a historian who, armed with historical materialism, sought to remain on the side of the oppressed. A choice of field that cost this professor without a tie, attacks by repression during the dictatorship, and by those in power after them. (Snaps that hit me, some of them, like carambola, when I was a boy.) Long years of isolation, censorship, cancellations by lots of coxinha university students. But that did not prevent Mário Maestri, to his great surprise, from being, in 2022, among the 200 most cited intellectuals in Latin America in the field of social sciences. Always without a tie.

*gregócarboni maestri river is a teacher in architecture at the Free University of Brussels and the Université Catholique de Louvain.



Mario Maestri. Sons of Ham and sons of Dog. The enslaved worker in Brazilian historiography. Porto Alegre, FCM Editora, 2022.


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